There was a top 20 and then @danmumbleson released an album on 8 December. So, 20 became 21.

St Vincent – Masseduction

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The promo campaign did nothing for me, neither did the outfits, nor a couple of the über-pop tunes, but, fundamentally, behind all the post-modern irony and the major-label production values, this was an old-fashioned St Vincent album in all its glory.

Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

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Lana Del Rey is one of my favourite artists. A woman who has beaten corporate musicality and has been able to make the music she wants. Respect. Don’t tell anyone, though, but without the collaborations this would have been an even better album.

Ryan Adams – The Prisoner

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Maybe it was the Flying V, but from the very first chords Prisoner hit the spot.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

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My gig of the year. But Jason Isbell didn’t just deliver a fantastic show in 2017. He also delivered a top-class album with songs about beating alcohol, managing anxiety, and living in Trump’s America. All the more remarkable when you think that you’d need the first to manage the second caused by the third.

Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface

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Truly a mad-cap project. But an album that at a certain point of the year I simply could not stop playing. And it had the effect that all great albums have. It made me reacquaint myself with the back catalogue. Revisiting Simple Math was an almost equal pleasure.

Holy Holy – Paint

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Holy Holy delivered their ‘difficult’ sophomore album with great panache. Better even than their debut, Paint was full of good old fashioned rock songs (but for a modern age).

Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet

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I couldn’t stop listening to the Soft Sounds of Japanese Breakfast over the summer. Expecting some wonderfully Proustian moments in years to come.

Dan Michaelson – First Light

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Dan Michaelson’s first solo album was built around a plaintive piano. His second features a string section. Plaintively, of course. With the sound perfectly complementing the sentiment, “Don’t dwell on old kisses you’ll always regret”, First Light is scarcely a blast of Christmas cheer. But released only a few days ago, it proves there really is a Sanity Clause.

Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

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Sounding like songs of innocence, these were more like songs of a certain type of suburban experience. “Everyone’s home in sweatpants for the series finale of their discontinued fall prime time”. For sure, the neighbours may be slightly passive-aggressive, “And if I am not mistaken, You still owe me, 27 dollars”, but the air is thick with tender melodies and exotic instrumentation.

Widowspeak – Expect The Best

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There’s a density to the sound of Widowspeak, but there’s also a sensitivity to melody that keeps the tunes in your head long after the record has stopped.

Robyn Hitchcock

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Sparky riffs. Erudite lyrics. Robyn Hitchcock rolled back the years and delivered one of his finest albums in years. Meanwhile, therapists are still pouring over the lyrics. “I’m naked in the water, In the amniotic sea, Inside my real mother, She opens up for me”. Oh boy.

Pitchfork tells me that my preferred genre is Contemporary Adult Indie. And Pitchfork should know. So, here are five albums from some of my favourite purveyors of Contemporary Adult Indie that were released this year.

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

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It was tough to follow Lost In The Dream. And A Deeper Understanding was always likely to be received as Lost In The Dream Pt. 2. Was it less thrilling? A little perhaps. Was it slightly mellower? The chances are. Was it a deeper understanding? Undoubtedly.

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

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Five years between albums is a long time. And Grizzly Bear returned to a very different world. For that reason if no other, Painted Ruins didn’t have quite the same impact as Yellow House or even Veckatimest. But there were some great tunes and some great titles. ‘Systole’, that point in the heartbeat process when the heart is contracting.

Iron & Wine – Beast Epic

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From The Creek That Drank The Cradle through to Ghost On Ghost, Sam Beam’s trajectory seemed perfectly linear. From spare and plaintive songs through to rich, multi-tracked arrangements. But with Beast Epic there was a return to somewhat simpler musical times. The result was a real gem.

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

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The anticipation is always better than the event. And Crack-Up conformed to that general rule. But this was still a fine album. The figurative Crack-Up was perhaps taken a little too literally on some of the tracks, notably the opener, whose whole was not the sum of its parts. Yet, rejoice nonetheless. For Fleet Foxes are back.

Conor Oberst – Salutations

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In more ways than one, Salutations was Ruminations plus. With the welcome addition of Ian and James Felice among others, Conor Oberst transformed 2016’s stripped-down set into a full-on band experience and added some new tunes for good measure. Next year, expect the arrival of the version for orchestra and massed choir.

2017. It felt like a lifetime. Roll on 2018. In the meantime, here are five of my favourite albums of the year.

The Weather Station

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There are elements to Tamara Lindeman’s fourth album that bear comparison with her fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The music is folky, but the themes are complex. And so too are some of the song structures. It could have ended up a wilfully challenging listen. But a string of lovely melodies keeps everything nicely in balance.

Michael Nau – Some Twist

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Formerly of Cotton Jones, this is Michael Nau’s second solo album. It’s a collection of late-night wonders. So, if you’re feeling slightly woozy and liminality is fast approaching, then Some Twist is the perfect companion. Rest assured that it can be enjoyed at other times of the day too.

Kacey Johansing – The Hiding

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The cover may suggest a concept album about the perils of getting up slightly too early in the morning. But the songs are confident, strong, and far from dishevelled. Made with the help of members of Real Estate and Vetiver, The Hiding is a collection of sublime pop songs. If they make you think of mid-1970s Christine McVie, you wouldn’t be far off.

Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

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Hand Habits is Meg Duffy, who is originally from upstate New York. Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) is a beautiful album, which is full of gentle songs with lovely melodies. But don’t be fooled, though. There’s a determination to this set. “I don’t need to be set free. I already know”.

Richard Edwards – Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset

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May Margot and [Her] Nuclear So and So’s Rest In Peace. But arise Richard Edwards.  Always the guiding force behind the greatest-band-that-never-quite-was, this is the first solo album from the Margot’s front man. Turns out, though, it’s a Margots album in all but name. O happy day.

 

 

 

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor

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In the latter part of the 21st century when students at the future University of South-West Tulsa are completing their sophomore year in Neil Young Studies, it’s possible that they’ll consider The Visitor to be a late-career highlight. In contrast to the throwaway Peace Trail and the bombastic Storytone, The Visitor captures a band that sounds like they’ve playing together for years and includes songs that make you want to listen to them for more than just old times’ sake. For sure, the context is clear. We’re in Trumpland, or anti-Trumpland from the Youngster’s perspective. “I’m living with a game show host, Who has to brag and has to boast, ‘Bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear”. But unlike The Monsanto Years, this visitor isn’t a preachy one. That’s probably because we’re all pretty much on the same page Trumpwise. So, there’s no need to belabour the point. And this means more time for the music. The guitar break on ‘Stand Tall’ is as good as anything in recent times. ‘Almost Always’ would be perfectly at home on ‘Silver and Gold’. And the melody on ‘Already Great’ sounds like it’s been sitting in the archives for a couple of decades just waiting to find the right home. But there’s more than just a few nice sounds here and there. ‘Carnival’ could be one of the very best Neil Young tunes of all time. It’s based around a simple and potentially clichéd Mexican-style riff that continues for more than eight minutes. But there are some wonderful merry-go-round moments that harken back to songs like ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’, or The Beach Boys pre-Pet Sounds highlight, ‘Amusement Parks USA’. More than that, it’s a lyrical blast. “I do resent, Too much time was spent, In the tent of the strange, Elephant of Enlightenment!” And better still, this is Neil Young back at his cinematic, story-telling best. Think ‘Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Pt. 1)’, or ‘Ordinary People’ without the social commentary but with plenty of characterful cackling. The sophomore year of Neil Young Studies already has a rich and very varied curriculum. But students at the future University of South-West Tulsa may well find themselves spending some time with that late-career highlight, The Visitor.

Kramies – I Wish I Missed You

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Rejoice, because Kramies, our favourite ‘dream folklore’ artist (see below!), has released a new song. “I Wish I Missed You” is one of the tracks that he wrote during a stay in Ireland earlier this year. Recorded in a castle in Co. Kilkenny, the ambient crows provide an immediate sense of otherworldliness and there’s mention of kings, queens, and giants too. But it’s not all púca and síóga. This is a very human composition. It’s wistful and reflective. “Our time has come”. But it’s never bitter. It’s also a song that builds and builds to a lovely finish. A trademark Kramies finish. Irresistible. “I Wish I Missed You” is available now as a free download on Bandcamp. There’s also a fine video by Cam Merton that captures the mood of the song quite perfectly.

To celebrate the new arrival, we have an exclusive interview with Kramies himself. Thanks to the great man for his thoughts and his kindness.

What brought you to Ireland earlier this year?

I’ve been through Ireland a few times before on tour and every time I fall more and more in love with the landscape and the people. So much so that my EP “The Wooden Heart” came to me while walking the streets of Galway after a radio show in 2011. I always wanted the chance to be able to stay in one spot and write while in Ireland, and that chance finally came along.

This past April I was lucky enough to receive an artist residency in a castle while I finished writing my new album. It’s been a dream come true for a writer. So much has opened up for me here.

You featured a song called “Ireland” on your ‘forêts antiques’ EP, though you introduced it as not having a name then. What was the inspiration for that song and why did you choose that title in the end? 

Ha! I love that you noticed that. At the time when my concert in France was being filmed, I had just written the song. I was desperately trying to think of a name before the show, but nothing seemed to work. So, while performing it, I decided to just say that it was nameless. It’s funny because that same night I finally figured out that it would be the main story line for my next album and I called it “Ireland”.

The way I seem to write albums is by waiting for a story to appear in my imagination. I seem to write dark little folklore stories that come out of nowhere. Ireland, and its folklore, have been a big inspiration for me. I feel this might be my way of saying thank you. A good-bye story to the land that sparked so much creative imagination in me.

You label yourself as a ‘dream pop’ artist. What does the term ‘dream pop’ mean for you? 

That’s funny because I’m not even sure where the label ‘dream pop’ came from? At first when it was attached to me I was OK with it because it felt new and understandable, but now I’m not sure if it actually has any meaning. 🙂

I’ve never been very pop sounding, but I see where the dream element comes in. I would say maybe more ‘dream folklore’?

Honestly, I’m not sure what my music should be labeled as, but I’ll accept anything. I’m just glad to be able to make music.

In 2014, you worked with the great Jason Lytle on your Wooden Heart EP. What was he like to work with in the studio? What did he add to your sound?

Jason is wonderful and I’ve been so grateful for his help. In my opinion, Jason has a way of pulling a song apart and piecing it back together, so that the song shines and is way more interesting. He sees songs on a much more detailed level than most and has a knack of finding the central balancing point of a song. It takes a unique way of thinking to pull that off and he’s definitely the best.

Last year you put out a lovely new song, ‘Into The Sparks’, with Alma Forrer. How did that collaboration come about?

Alma is such a beautiful songwriter and person. I’m so glad we had the chance to record a song together. I remember right after I released my live EP I got a kind message from her. Then, once I heard her music I was blown away. I quickly wrote the song and sent it to her. She immediately recorded her vocals in France and I recorded the song and my vocals here in Colorado. It took maybe only a month. It was one of those unique times when all the pieces came together easily. I was very happy with the wonderful response too.

You also worked with Grant Wilson of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters fame on your EP, The Folklore Sessions. From the outside that was a really surprising collaboration, but a successful one. How did you two come across each other and decide to work together?

Now, this is one of my favorite stories. I had been a big fan of the show Ghost Hunters for many years and knew of Grant from that show. In 2010, I was in Colorado doing a radio show and they asked me why some of my songs speak of ghosts and castles. Then they asked if I ever watched Ghost Hunters and I said yes. After the show, I decided to drive to the famous Stanley Hotel to walk around. When I entered the hotel, Grant was actually sitting right there! It was all great and too weird. (Also, I must add that when I originally heard the music Grant was releasing, I absolutely loved it!) So, a few years later we started talking and I sent him a few songs which he added his beautiful piano parts to. And that’s how the ‘Folklore Sessions’ was born.

What’s your writing process? Do you write the music first, then the lyrics, or the other way around, or both together? How does a Kramies song come into being?

Well … it always seems to start with weird tuning and humming. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always made up a lot of my own tunings. It’s probably because I taught myself how to play instruments and I’ve never learned properly.

I would say that most of my songs start with a few odd chords that haunt me at night, then a melody line. From that point I can’t sleep until I piece it together. Somewhere in there a storyline will appear and I will play the song over and over until someone reminds me to eat and sleep.

I sense that the covers of your records are really important to you. They always figure beautiful, often stark images. How do you go about choosing your covers and arranging the design?

It’s so true! The images and covers are such an important part of the music and the entire journey. At least that’s what I hope others feel. I write mostly from mental imagery and at heart I’m truly just an artist who uses music as my outlet. So, it’s very important for me to find the right artwork. I’m very fortunate that I have a few artists and photographers as friends who help me get the crazy images out of my head and onto paper. 😉

The most important question of all. There’s a rumour that you’re back in the recording studio. How are things going? Will we get to hear any new music soon?

Those silly rumours. 😉

Yes, they are true. I have just released a new single/video that was all written and recorded at a castle in Ireland. It’s a song that won’t be on the album, but it was recorded in such a cool spot and has all the ghostly feelings of the past in it. The actual album will be released in 2018.

Tell us something that you haven’t told an interviewer before.

Hahahaha. OK, well, let’s see … That’s a tricky question … Well, I secretly talk to plants, trees and ghosts. 😉

Scenic Route to Alaska – Slow Down

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“Everyone’s telling me to stop, take a breath and slow down”. Sounds like the guys at Scenic Route to Alaska have been doing some mindfulness. But these are wise words. And ‘Slow Down’ is a great single. Despite the implication in the title, this is a song that  jumps out of the speakers. There’s a great riff and good energy throughout. Looking forward to the album early in the New Year. In the meantime, keep on truckin’.